Microplastics –What They Are, Why It Matters, and What We Should Do

Microplastic fragments are abundantly present in our water. They are unknowingly consumed by humans & animals alike, and may have negative impacts on human health. They are a prominent issue in marine pollution and the global environmental crisis more generally, and it is becoming increasingly important to know what microplastics are and how they affect us.

What Are Microplastics?

Microplastics are small pieces of plastic (less than 5 millimeters in length) shed by plastic products as they’re damaged by natural forces, such as the sun’s UV rays breaking down a water bottle, or the nonstop flow of water wearing on plastic pipes. Over time, the chemical structure begins to break down on a visible or even microscopic scale, releasing fragments of plastic into the environment. These plastic shards enter directly into water sources or may find their way there from the air or soil, putting water quality at risk.

The issue may be further intensified by the installation of plastic piping systems. Running water leaches chemicals from plastic pipes over time, fast-tracking plastic compounds into water used for drinking, cooking and showering.

Do Microplastics Have an Effect on Us?

Microplastics are important because they are abundant in our water and may negatively impact human health. Microplastics are so small that after we drink water or eat our favorite food, they can migrate through the intestinal wall, enter the bloodstream and visit our heart, brain, and other organs. In a first-of-its-kind study in 2018, scientists examined individuals from eight countries and found every single person had microplastics in their body. Studies have also shown microplastics to act as a bacterial and viral host. The damage microplastics inflict on human health is still being researched. However, a study from John Hopkins University found microplastic build up can harm the immune system and disrupt the human gut’s balance. It’s also well known that microplastics release chemical additives that are harmful to human health or reproduction, as demonstrated by studies examining the toxicity of microplastics.  A study estimated humans consume 39,000 – 52,000 microplastics annually and individuals who consume the recommended amount of tap water may ingest an additional 4,000 plastic particles every year due to particles shed from plastic pipes or already present in water supplies.

What Should We Do to Prevent Microplastics From Entering Our Drinking Water?

Eliminating microplastics from our diet and lifestyle is a complicated task: the fragments can come from any type of plastic. To reduce the amount consumed through tap water sources, building owners should add filters designed to remove microplastics, and consider replacing any plastic products that handle or transport water, such as piping and bottles with more sustainable alternatives.

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